Several young people I know are starting college during the upcoming week and all the preparations got me in a nostalgic mood and turned my thoughts towards my own sojourn into “higher education.”
I went to college planning to get into a career where I could make a lot of money. This mindset sprang from my daddy’s measuring stick for success, which is wealth. I had three possible lucrative careers in mind. First, I could go the “doctor” route. I knew that would be a mistake though because of a tour of the Gross Anatomy Lab at MUSC in Charleston. I’m not the most squeamish person, but someone left a partially dissected hand out from under a sheet and that sight combined with a hot dog lunch and the smell of Clorox and chloroform made my innards rebel. I spent a good part of the bus ride home face down in a plastic bag.
My second thought was “lawyer,” but Mama threatened to disown me if I stooped so low regardless of the money involved. With those two doors shut, I set off to registration intending to become an engineer. Fewer ventures which started so innocuously have ended so completely in the toilet.
Since Engineers do a lot of math I figured I’d best get started so first I registered for calculus. At this point, I feel I should disclose something, I take to math like a cat takes to water. To me, math is akin to witchcraft and its practitioners should be burned at the stake. Still, if I was going to make that mass of Benjamins everyone expected, I was going to have to conquer math.
Here’s where things got ugly. As a senior in high school, against my better judgement, I took AP Calculus, BUT — as I’ve written before — I was gifted with a math teacher who was second to none. Because of Mr. Brady’s skill as a teacher and my seat next to Greg Hindman, I took the AP exam and made a 3 of 5. That was a mistake. The guy signing me up for math at Clemson looked at my test score and determined I would skip THREE SEMESTERS of Calculus. My first semester at university I was in Calculus 208. I didn’t know it, but I was a dead man walking.
Calculus 208 was an eight o’clock morning class in a lecture hall just smaller than a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane hanger. Moreover, I hadn’t seen a crowd like that since the last Laurens / Clinton football game. Half a mile away in the front of the room hung a projector screen larger than the main screen at the Oaks Theater movie house. Binoculars would not have been out of place. Strangely, I seemed to smell hot dogs and chloroform and my stomach began to ache just a bit.
I found a seat about halfway to the front next to a huge, good-natured country boy named Joel from Stone Mountain, Georgia. He and I exchanged some typical Southern small talk and then the professor walked in talking like an auctioneer with a truckload of cotton bales to get sold and precious little time to do it. He introduced himself as something like Dr. Rafsanjani or such then turned to a whiteboard under the projector. He wrote and spoke five solid minutes and I may have caught every third word, but when he finally put his marker down and looked at us, I understood every thickly accented word he said,”Class, I vill not beat around bush. De equations on board should be familiar to you from earlier Calculus. If you can not integrate, derive, and further manipulate each WITH EASE, it is veddy unlikely you shall pass dis course. I have teaching since you were children and know vhat I speak. If you do not recognize how to work dese equations, it vill be advisable for you to drop dis class now. I have drop add slips. Raise hands if you need one. Dere is no shame in knowing one’s limitations.” I looked at what he’d written. ONE equation looked somewhat familiar. The rest could have been Arabic or Sanskrit for all the sense they made to me. I looked at Joel; he looked at me, and we both slowly turned and raised our hands to get a drop slip.
We ate breakfast after we dropped the slips off. Joel planned to drop back to beginning Calculus 106 and start over. I knew better than to try. People mistakenly call me smart. I am not smart, I have a good memory and blossom under good teachers. MATH people are smart. Bill Gates is smart. Mr. Brady wasn’t here; Greg wasn’t sitting next to me and I had no idea how to begin studying the arcana Prof. Raj had scratched on the board. I dropped back ten and punted.
My engineering career derailed, I went back to my room and pored over the major catalog trying to find something I could succeed in. It didn’t take long to figure out ANYTHING remotely science or technically related went through Calculus 208 — or worse. By lunchtime, I’d made the only choice I could. I was going to go into education and be a teacher. Even then I had to settle for being an English teacher instead of the science teacher I’d wanted to be because all the science education majors required that godforsaken Calculus.
So there you have it. I’m not an engineer raking in the big bucks for one simple reason — I can’t do the math. Of course, I guess it’s better to know that now than to find out after a bridge I designed fell into a river and killed a lot of people. Things have a way of working out whether we want them to or not.
Love y’all. Have a good school year, and keep those feet clean.